Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: lacan

Sickness, health, death

Medical thought finally effected an identification over which all Western thought since Greek medicine had hesitated: that madness, after all, was only madness.
Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation


We are all crazed, weird loners. I am. You are. Silent all day, fixed to the computer, quiet in company, meek and polite, docile, neutered, and dangerous. We went wrong somewhere, a line was crossed, and though we don’t know when it happened we do know that we shouldn’t be feeling like this, that this isn’t just ordinary unhappiness. It’s hard to fix. Somatic sicknesses have their pathogens swarming in your veins, but there’s no antibiotic for an illness that comes from outside and everywhere.

Whenever someone snaps, when an ordinary and anonymous person starts killing, the obvious question is why. This is the kind of thing that ought not to be happening; we’ve worked for centuries to excise violent death from ordinary life, but the result is that when it does happen it’s all the more wounding, a tear cut right through the thinness of social existence, and we need to know why. This desperate need to know doesn’t apply so much to all the other horrors people suffer constantly, things that are held to be an intrinsic part of the world, even though most people don’t have much of a rigorous understanding of them either: why are some people poor and other people rich? Why are we always at war? Never mind murder, where does bread come from? There aren’t any easy answers for these, although people have tried. For the other question we have plenty. If that moment, the person snapping, the tragedy, is classed as terrorism, there’s a ready-made language of violent ideology, radicalisation, geopolitics and civilisational conflict waiting to be inhabited. If it’s been classed as something else, another world awaits: this is about mental health, loners and weirdos, a psychology hovering on the edge of the biological. Madness happens, sometimes, and for no good reason: of course it’s inexplicable, otherwise it wouldn’t be madness.

This is what happened when a single gunman murdered the Labour MP Jo Cox this week: the newspapers insisted that this was a case of one man’s disease, the hatred of a crazed, weird loner. The nature of the disease doesn’t need to be mentioned. Schizophrenia, psychosis, depression, anorexia, trichotillomania all collapse into the blank euphemism of the Mentally Ill, a sympathetic shorthand for doing what ought not to be done. And they’re right. It’s all very well to insist that mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrator – but this particular form of violence, the lone obsessive’s attack, is with only a few exceptions the preserve of the sick. A mentally healthy person does not do this. The smiling people in adverts and sitcoms, the obnoxiously at-ease, the people whose minds sit happily in their skulls and don’t torment them with the sweat and terror of late-night resentment – these people do not commit acts of random mass murder, or shoot politicians on the street, or blow themselves up in a crowd of strangers. Nobody has ever killed because they were too happy and too content with their life.

But who are these mentally healthy people? In the simplest of terms, they don’t exist. Illness is a presence: there’s something wrong, something that announces itself, you can probe it and ask it questions, diagnose it and give it a name. Health is a negative, the absence of anything wrong. The mentally healthy person is entirely in accord with their environment, without any tension between inside and out, faultless in a perfect homogeneity with the world. The only person this could actually describe is a fully decomposed corpse. For the living, there are only different species of madness: in psychoanalysis, for instance, the great manoeuvre is to turn the psychotic into a more socially acceptable neurotic, and untangle a few of the neurotic’s looser knots; that’s the best we can do. What we really mean by a healthy person is someone whose madness isn’t out of step with the madness of the social whole, who suffers what Adorno called the health unto death. The social whole is deeply, terrifyingly mad.

The victim was an MP noted for her advocacy for Syrian migrants. Her killer was a neo-Nazi, who bought gun-making instructions from an American white supremacist group, reportedly shouted ‘Britain First!’ after the murder, and gave his name in court as ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain.’ You can call his ideology an epiphenomenon of his madness if you want; plenty have. Since 1945, happy and content people have tended not to be outright Hitlerists. (In fact, they tend to not be interested in any kind of politics whatsoever.) But there is no mental illness known to medical practice that turns its sufferers into violent fascists; fascism as a political ideology is not independently created, swastikas and all, every time something goes clunk in the brain. Go back to your Lacan: the mind is not a self-contained system; nothing in the psyche is ever a pure interiority. This fascism is coming from somewhere, and the fog over Britain is full of it.

Who did this? Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove, and all the others wallowing happily in this island’s deep muddy fathoms of petty resentment and slow-boiling hate, crusted over with a thin facade of blank politeness. The whole country is a crazed, weird loner, locking itself off with oceans, distant but friendly, furious inside. More than anyone, this situation is the creature of the Labour party itself, which has been for decades covering itself in the soft fascism of anti-immigrant sentiment, assured that everyone would like them if only they were more racist, convinced that demanding controls on immigration from a big rock or a novelty mug would endear them to an imagined audience of nationalist thugs. In the process, they shut out anything that would have insisted on our common humanity as sneering metropolitan humanism. They fattened up the fury of groups like Britain First; an ideology as crazed and lunatic as fascism wouldn’t be able to communicate itself if it didn’t find friendly footholds in the ruling discourses. It’s not that the EU referendum has unleashed an already existing tide of xenophobia and racism – this debate, and so many beforehand, have been actively creating it.

It’s not just newspapers and politicians, though; as Britain declines the entire country has taken on an unspoken nihilist ideology, a constant drizzling hatred for all life. The bloom of anti-migrant feeling in Britain is stinking and poisonous, but it’s only a symptom, and like all symptoms it speaks itself. We talk about the burden of migration, having to cope with however many new arrivals, the drain on common resources that each of them represents. In other words, the human being is both excess and negation, something distressingly more than it ought to be, something less than a presence, something that ought not to exist at all. Every person is a void, sucking up food and jobs and healthcare that could have gone to someone else. In a post-industrial society, our dominant economic activity is no longer production but consumption, and politics lacks a language for all the other ways in which any person can add to the world: all it can see is a ravenous jaw and a shitting anus, a despoiler, a locust. The Khmer Rouge said that ‘to keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss,’ but in twenty-first century Britain we really believe it. And in such a situation to kill someone isn’t to destroy a life, it’s the only kind of production we can still recognise.

The world is wrong, the social whole is sick, and we’re sick with it. The Brexit charade has brought a terrifying frenzy to our usual political stupor, but there’s no point pretending that the killing of Jo Cox represents some new violence, a death of civility, a withering of respect. With its grey damp misery this country has always hated life: before this we were butchering in the Middle East, before that we were massacring in Ireland, before that Britain was seized by a five hundred year long spasm of murder, washing blood over every continent, and we called it glorious. But the general sickness carries a central contradiction: you’re meant to believe that the country is under threat, that enemies are swarming in, that life is worthless – but you’re not supposed to do anything about it. The sane and healthy people will still kill, but in more socially acceptable ways – in uniform, or from behind a desk, out of sight; they do it happily, but within a legitimised structure that blots out the personal will. This is what it comes down to: the murderer of Jo Cox swallowed it all up and killed all by himself, and therefore he was crazy.

All cats are girls and all dogs are boys: further notes on Slavoj Žižek

Where thought has opened up one cell of reality, it should, without violence by the subject, penetrate the next. It proves its relation to the object as soon as other objects crystallize around it. In the light that it casts on its chosen substance, others begin to glow.
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia


It was gratifying to see, in his latest response to me, that Slavoj Žižek is finally engaging with the psychoanalytic concepts that are (after all) his intellectual speciality. I happen to have some disagreements with the way in which he uses them, but I’ll come to that later. The dispute over certain terms – desire, fantasy, culture, and so on – spirals out from a parenthetical observation I made in my initial critique of Žižek. He writes that migrants should abandon the unrealistic demand for a better life in a ‘Norway’ that does not exist, and should agree to be settled wherever a coercive European state apparatus decides to send them. I respond: ‘Isn’t this precisely the operation of the objet petit a? What kind of Lacanian tells someone that they should effectively abandon their desire for something just because it’s not attainable? Or are migrants not worthy of the luxury of an unconscious mind?’ In our subsequent exchanges Žižek argues that my invocation of objet petit a is not legitimate, and that the desire in question has instead the structure of a fantasy. These are not, in the Lacanian cosmology, opposing terms; if what we’re dealing with here is indeed a fantasy, it needs to be taken seriously as such. Žižek disagrees; the fantasy must be ‘traversed.’ In this contest – who’s using the terms correctly, who’s abusing them, the gotcha game of faultlines and connections, the gasping slapfight for legitimacy, all of it largely irrelevant to the issue at hand – something was passed over: the question of whether migrants do, in fact, have an unconscious mind. The question was supposed to be absurd, but apparently I should have insisted on it with more force. Because the answer, according to Žižek’s recent essay in the New Statesman, is actually no, they don’t.

Here, Žižek builds on a structure proposed by Alain Badiou in the wake of the massacre in Paris, a division of the world into three forms of subjectivity: that of the liberal-democratic West (this is a neutral quantity, and demands no further investigation), and two modes of response to its global dominance. First, the ‘desire for the West,’ which manifests itself in migration and in what Žižek scorns as the ‘miserable copies of western prosperity’ – coffee shops in Lagos, shopping malls in Luanda. How dare they! (It’s not clear why Žižek invests these places with the horror of the unreal; you don’t have to be a Baudrillardian to recognise that the coffee shop in London or Lisbon is fundamentally also a miserable copy.) Secondly, the ‘nihilist reversal’: a zombie plague. The envy of the non-Western subject is inflamed into a fascistic, insensate rage, something that collapses into ‘hatred pure and simple.’ It’s here that Žižek diverges from Badiou. For the latter, our task is to ‘go and see who is this other about whom one talks, who are they really. We have to gather their thoughts, their ideas, their vision of things.’ For Žižek, this is impossible. This other is ‘utterly disoriented;’ behind their frantic psychodynamic torque there is no ‘”deeper” human core of global solidarity.’ So much for the depth metaphors of Freudianism; we cannot talk with these people because they are incapable of speech. It’s not just that we don’t share the same symbolic terrain; it’s a landscape on which they simply have no presence. They are incoherent Orientals, speechless and psychotic, objectively robbed of everything by the disposessive whirlwind of global capitalism, but on the subjective level terrifyingly uncastrated. This is the framework that Žižek uses to talk about the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne.

His primary theoretical referent here is not Lacan or even Badiou, but the new Tarantino film The Hateful Eight. Who, he asks, is the hateful figure in this film? It’s the entire cast: the black man fighting off armed racists is every bit as ‘mean, brutal, and revengeful’ as his enemies; the forces of law and order are as venal and sadistic as the gang of criminals. (He doesn’t mention it, but the friendly black inkeepers are also virulent anti-Mexican racists.) The lesson Žižek draws is that everyone is bad: refugees might be fleeing from terrible horrors, but that doesn’t give them any great moral virtue; they’re still capable of carrying out violent and inexcusable crimes. The idea that everything is bad should be pretty much axiomatic; I’m certainly not interested in contesting it. But I think Žižek has engaged in a significant misreading of the film. The Hateful Eight is not a film about good or bad people; it’s a film about the State. Everything in it centres around paperwork; when they’re not killing each other, the characters spend most of the running time scrutinising each other’s documents. Samuel L Jackson’s character has a letter from President Lincoln which is occasionally demanded of him; he also has warrants for the deaths of the three bodies he carries around with him. With these pieces of paper he is a lawful bounty hunter; without them he is a criminal. Tim Roth’s character is a travelling executioner; his paperwork entitles him to hang the guilty for a living, and if the message weren’t already clear he gives us a long monologue on the difference between State force and personal violence. The real lesson is that neither can be considered independently: each produces, structures, and limits the other. I didn’t particularly like The Hateful Eight, but it does demonstrate a fairly obvious Marxist dictum: it’s pointless to consider any instance of violence in its isolated abstraction, you have to position it within the concrete historical totality of human relations. It’s no use talking about good or bad people; any action is necessarily a product of the social field in which it takes place.

To be fair, Žižek makes a feint in this direction, referring (in a rushed, unenthusiastic moment of obeisance to the leftist liturgy) to the ‘systematic violence of capitalism itself, from the catastrophic consequences of global economy to the long story of military interventions.’ But this doesn’t really inform his analysis. Fundamentalist fascism is something other to the civilised West, attached by a gossamer-thin dialectic; women were attacked in Cologne not because migrants don’t understand that Western sexual etiquette is different, but because they understand that perfectly well, and they hate it. Here the societies of the West are figured as free and open and (on the level of gender, at least) egalitarian; those of the Middle East are not, and the events in Cologne mark the point of friction between these two codes. This is patently untrue. Societies in Europe and the Middle East are both of them patriarchal and repressive (it’s not as if sexual assault was unknown in Cologne until the refugees arrived; such atrocities are epidemic throughout the continent), and feminist movements in both regions have to contend with an overwhelming tide of male violence. There is a long and heroic tradition of Arab and Islamic feminism: the question isn’t one of why the West is more permissive but why oppositional movements within the West have had more success in influencing their social fields. It’s impossible to answer this question without looking in detail at the history and politics of the regions concerned. Since the middle of the twentieth century, the Middle East and the wider Islamic world has experienced a brutal repression of womens’ rights – compare, for instance, photographs of street scenes in Kabul from the era of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan with images from today, and compare how the women are dressed. Throughout the twentieth century, peoples across the Islamic world attempted to build secular, socialist, egalitarian states, and time and again they were met by Western imperialism. The West’s geopolitical aims in the Middle East require repressive governments, subdued populations, client states that will obediently facilitate the extraction of value – and social repression in general is inextricable from the oppression of women. Fundamentalist fascism is not the dialectical antithesis of the values of a bourgeois West, but something entirely immanent to it. The cruelty that displayed itself on the streets and squares of Cologne was not the result of a cultural difference, with cultural causes; its causes were political.

It’s this notion of culture that returns us to Žižek’s critique of my critique of his critique of my critique. Beyond some minor terminological wrangling (no, fantasy is not a symptom, and I didn’t intend to suggest that it is; the notion that a fantasy is symptomatic of a ‘deeper’ ill comes straight from Žižek’s own essay), his main objection is this: by using Lacanian concepts to consider the relation to an other that is constructed along racial or cultural rather than sexual-libidinal lines, I am distorting and misusing those concepts. Naturally, I disagree: properly deployed, a concept would not be a border clamping down on its object, but something that allows it to open up, form connections, and reach out to further non-identities. This is why theory is useful: it provides a way to alternately bring things together and spread them apart, to form ways of thinking that cut across phenomena in their isolation and allow us to think things in their bubbling totality. Here I think the Master might be on my side – after all, Lacan famously declared that ‘Marx invented the symptom’; he’s generally open to the ability of a signifier to drift through various regimes.

Žižek’s objections, when taken seriously, indicate a strangely non-Lacanian approach. He writes that the lack of an appropriate signifier for the other is something that ‘does not primarily occur between different ways of life (cultures) but within each particular culture’ (ie, between a subject and its libidinal object) and that my position implies that ‘each culture somehow manages to be in touch with itself, it just lacks appropriate signifiers for other cultures.’ It does not; I’m talking about relations between subjects: as I’ve written before, I find the abstract notion of a distinct and cohesive culture to be fairly useless. Žižek’s insistence on upholding this idea in these circumstances is revealing: to do so, he ends up having to assert that the division of people into cultures is primary, primary even to the division in gender that Lacan is talking about. First people are arranged into different ‘ways of life,’ then we get Oedipus. This isn’t Lacan, it’s Samuel Huntington. Lacan, as far as I’m aware, does not tend to use the word ‘culture’ very much: what Žižek is talking about are his four discourses, those of the Master, the Hysteric, the University, and the Analyst – and not, I should point out, the European, the Arab, the African, and so on. Discourses are, as the name suggests, discursive; a structure of relations that will operate whenever there is any kind of relation. (As Žižek points out, this being Lacan, discourses are not spaces of mutual comprehensibility but different forms of mutual misunderstanding.) A subject can operate within a discourse, but to formulate an encounter between subjects – one that will necessarily take place under a certain set of conditions – as an encounter between discourses is nonsensical. These arrangements can meet, and have their agonisms – Lacan’s name for this is politics, and keeping in mind his dictum that ‘the unconscious is politics,’ it’s clear that this political clash of discourses should in no way be read as a clash of subjects.

Collapsing the notion of culture into that of discourse is, arguably, a far greater distortion of the terminology than anything I’ve achieved – most of all, because its operation is not expansive, but restrictive. With the discursive character of the discourse passed over, with its collapse into the blankness of culture, Žižek is capable of figuring migrants as a cultural null point, as those who do not and can not speak. What Žižek performs is an ossification of forms into static categories. All cats are girls. And all dogs are boys.

PS: I can’t finish without noting Žižek’s complaint against my ‘intellectual sleight of hand’: where he said ‘fundamentalist Muslims,’ I only quoted the second word. It’s a bit like one of his own parables: the word that’s missing is the one that gives the sentence meaning, etc, etc. I’ll admit to the misquote, but I’m not sure that the appended word alters the meaning in any significant manner; the opposition between ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘moderate’ Islam is a fairly insidious nonsense. Cracking kernels and so on.

PPS: In their discussion of the barbarian State, Deleuze and Guattari describe it as a train: the grand paranoiac, followed by his obedient perverts – ‘the conqueror and his elite troops, the despot and his bureaucrats, the anchorite and his monks.’ This came to mind while reading Adam Kotsko’s defence of Žižek. He argues that the best way to understand Žižek’s position is through the lens of his own book. (Well, of course.) Kotsko argues that the worst elements of Žižek’s stance on the migration crisis are in fact a provocative overidentification with the false terms of the debate. This is fine. He also writes that, unlike his critics, Žižek is providing concrete, sensible, workable solutions to the problem. This is also fine. I would suggest, though, that you can’t really have both.

How crying children conquered the world


I write about politics for Vice, and as a result a lot of people tend to call me a cunt. Sometimes, this happens in old-fashioned material reality, at which point I’m forced to immediately wrestle my interlocutor to the ground and snip off a lock of their hair, or else risk losing my honour within the clan. Mostly, however, it happens online. I understand why this happens: it happens because what I do is, essentially, morally indefensible. It’s not as if the people who call me a cunt are interrupting a peaceable conversation on the issues of the day between myself and a few like-minded souls. Because I have a platform, one which aggressively promotes itself, what I do is strange and hideous: I roll down someone’s street atop a huge, garish, horse-drawn float, surrounded by falteringly mechanical dancers and accompanied by a terrible backing track, to scream my opinions through a megaphone directly into their windows. What can I say? It’s a living. I try to mitigate this basic evil by being as entertaining or as insightful as my abilities allow, or by talking about something that I think is important, or that my readership will be able to relate to – but my efforts can’t change the fact that what I do is, at core, stupid, selfish, and wrong. People call me a cunt, and very often I disagree with their proximal reasons for having done so, but it’s hard to conclude that they’re entirely wrong. This is why I tend not to reply to them: I feel, constantly, a deep and keening sense of shame. I hide my face from people at bus stops. I need six Percocet and a punch to the face before I can sleep at night, or else ghastly fairground music echoes through my head and I soak my sheets in sweat until morning. I don’t know what I am, but I do know this: I am not a man.

It’s unsettling, then, how many of my colleagues in the commentariat have such a different reaction to being correctly identified by people who aren’t as famous as they are. I understand that when you’ve been running a column for several years, it can be hard to find new things to meaningfully talk about. The existence of the readership slowly falls away: there’s just you, and your editor, and an entire world grimly reconfiguring itself into nothing but raw material, dross and scoriae to be intelligently dissected every few days. So when your readership suddenly unconceals itself from view, by calling you a cunt, you go: aha, there’s my next column right there. Because you’ve forgotten that they could be anything other than the object of your finely honed discourse. Because you’ve forgotten, in the mire of your narcissism, that those faceless hordes have human bodies attached, and you’re not necessarily any better than they are. Because you’ve forgotten that, while you might have an editor and a salary and a very nice house in London, absolutely nobody wants to read about how upset you are that someone called you a cunt on the internet. And yet these columns keep getting written, each of them long and lily-white and, in accordance with the classical form of the colonnade, absolutely identical. Not just that: the same people write the same column over and over again, as if anything new is being said, as if anything worthwhile is being added to the discourse. Insulated from social reality, a whole class of people have come to believe that what the public really cares about is their tiny paltry personal grievances. It’s not really language; it’s far closer what Lacan refers to as ‘the cry’: a baby’s scream, an animal’s howl, an unsignifying, inrotrojective, psychotic whine of displeasure. These people are children.

I should point out that this is a sickness endemic and unique to broadsheet writers: people who write for the tabloids know that they exist to galvanise the converted and to inflame the outsiders; when they get attacked for their cruel and thoughtless opinions they know it’s the sign of a job well done. Broadsheet writers, who are far more stupid, actually think that what they do has merit: they don’t just want people to be swayed by the force of their argument and the intricacies of their prose; they want to be loved. Freud could tell you what comes next. When that love fails to materialise, when ordinary people who don’t even work for a newspaper dare to point out that what they’ve said is actually thoroughly moronic, we’re due another thousand-word corrective diatribe against saddos on social media. Which is a strange way of putting things – it might be pathetic to waste time tweeting anonymously at some big-name newspaper writer, but it’s even more pathetic for the writer to then spend several hours hashing out a self-regarding response, to bleat on about how the trolls don’t make them mad and they’re laughing actually. Of course, the difference is that the troll is not paid for their labour, while the broadsheet writer is. To which the only sane conclusion is that while the writer might not be so pathetic, the entire system by which contemporary capitalist society allocates value is in total collapse.

Case in point: Howard Jacobson. I’ve written about him before, so some of this might be familiar ground, but he’s contributed the most recent example of the genre, and he really is the worst: the smuggest, the most self-satisfied, the most unthinkingly and uncomprehendingly disagreeable. Howard Jacobson is a Booker prize-winning hack novelist who has, over an illustrious thirty-five-year career, repeatedly written the same book about how Jews who don’t support ethnic cleansing in Palestine are all self-hating neurotics. He also writes the worst newspaper column currently published anywhere in the world. His latest effort bills itself as being a set of ‘rules for online debate’, but don’t be fooled. He starts with a fiddly segment about irony and sincerity, a cheap plastic knockoff of Theodor Adorno’s The Essay as Form, but it’s only a clever little way of covering his own arse. All he’s saying is this: ‘I am better than you, so please don’t be mean to me or any of my famous friends.’ The piece is an extended sneer against ‘those who cling like drowning rats to the coat-tails of any writer who can swim.’ Which is an ungodly chimera of a metaphor: if you’re in the water with the rats, then you have presumably also fled the sinking ship. It’s also oddly familiar. Three months ago, Howard Jacobson wrote, in a separate column, that ‘people for good reason denied a platform of their own cling to the coat-tails of those published in the daylight.’ A desperate recapitulation of the same image, a circular motion going nowhere: it doesn’t so much suggest the artful strokes of an adept swimmer as the thrashing of someone about to drown.

Here are some of Howard Jacobson’s rules for online debate.

Lesson No 4: Don’t marvel that publications give space to the particular worst living writer you have your sights fixed on today. It sounds like sour grapes. Of course it is sour grapes, but you should try to conceal it. The last thing a person whose only outlet is an online forum should draw attention to is the envy consuming him from the fingers down.

Lesson No 8: A writer who has more words than you have isn’t ipso facto a show-off. Ditto a writer who has read a couple of books and is otherwise cultivé. By bleating about his or her erudition you are merely allowing your own ignorance to embarrass you. It should.

Lesson No 9: Don’t imagine that a word you say is going to make a blind bit of difference. You wouldn’t be tweeting poison if you were otherwise able to solicit interest. But if you must fight a losing battle try at least to be sophisticated. Telling a writer you despise that he has his head up his arse will only make him feel good about himself. Better his arse, after all, than yours.

This seems like it could be summed up in ten words: ‘I have a platform and you don’t, nyer nyer nyer.’ Having an outlet makes you important and worthwhile; being without one is akin to death. (Interesting, then, that Howard Jacobson himself once railed against the supposed vapidity of celebrities considerably more famous than he is, writing that ‘I am for banning the phrase “sour grapes” […] There is, quite simply, no life of the intellect when we can think of no motive for criticism but sour grapes.’ Funny how the times change, isn’t it?) Except the people Jacobson is complaining about do have a platform; if they didn’t, he wouldn’t even be aware of their existence. There’s a lot that’s deeply corrosive about communications technology, and most of the stuff about everyone having a voice is nonsense, but it has made it harder for mediocrities like Howard Jacobson to successfully abstract themselves from the world. All this is bluster, the disguised panic of someone whose plinth is slowly being eroded, the rage of a man used to making pronouncements from on high suddenly finding himself at ground level with everyone else. So what else does he have? His erudition, his cultivation, his self-satisfaction. Here’s a general rule: a writer who is this pleased with himself is never a good writer. The history of great literature is populated by writers inordinately suspicious of words in general and their own words in particular. Chaucer ends the Canterbury Tales with a retraction of his ‘translacions and enditynges of worldly vanitees’; Shakespeare has Prospero abjure the art of stagecraft and vow to ‘drown my book.’ Beckett, probably the greatest writer of the twentieth century, worries that ‘you would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till all is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.’ Meanwhile, Howard Jacobson crows that he knows more words than you do. I’m not saying that I am a better writer than he is. I am saying that a dog pissing against a tree is a better writer than he is.

This is where we are: the people whose job it is to have thoughts for mass consumption are not just stupid but thoughtless. How did we get here? It’s not that crying children seized the world by force, it’s just that rulers, whenever challenged, always reveal themselves to be essentially infantile. In a period of secular decline such as ours, what this looks like is an era of ultimogeniture. It shouldn’t be surprising that, under capitalism, the task of moderating the general discourse has gone to a pack of overgrown babies; it is surprising how little consciousness they have of what they are. Writers have always secretly despised their public; this is nothing new, and should broadly be encouraged. When the appointed greats write about how much they despise their public, when they seemingly do very little else, it’s a sign that something has exhausted itself, that what we’re watching is the last recursive twitch of a long-dead corpse. There is still writing, there are still opinions, there is still goodness. But not here.

(PS: It’s entirely possible that Jacobson’s repeated use of the phrase ‘the worst living writer’ is entirely coincidental. But it also formed the title of my first post on him, and given that this blog is occasionally read and shared by people in writing and publishing and other allied trades, it’s not inconceivable that he’s read it. In which case I should point out that it’s customary, when responding to a critique, to refer to it directly. For all his sins, Slavoj Žižek is not afraid to say my name: he actually believes in the kind of honest engagement that Jacobson emptily trumpets; he believes that he is right and I am wrong, and that his case isn’t weakened by pointing directly to mine. If you’re reading this, Howard, man the fuck up.)

In defence of fantasy: a further response to Slavoj Žižek


Yesterday, Slavoj Žižek responded to my earlier critique of his discussion of the migrant crisis. There are a few strange moments in his piece – I’ve never before read anyone refer to ‘a hoax brilliantly performed by [the] Daily Currant‘ – but the essay is mostly dominated by a familiar discussion of the antinomies of liberal tolerance. Žižek has made a name for himself by bravely challenging leftist dogmas on the merits of multiculturalism, with a critique so puckish and devastating that, as many people have pointed out, it’s virtually indistinguishable from overt right-wing nativism. I’m not going to repeat this argument – in fact, I agree with Žižek: there is something deeply wrong with the logic of liberal multiculturalism, but rather than subjecting it to any serious critique, he only reproduces its worst aspects. To borrow a phrase of which he’s fond, his criticism is only the obverse of its object. Multiculturalism is a profoundly antihumanist discourse: its basic unit is not the distinct and individual subject but the distinct and individual culture. And while there’s a case to be made for antihumanism – as Marxists and Freudians know, the individual subject isn’t an originary Democritean atom but something constructed – any discourse that takes culture rather than class (or even race, sexuality, or any of the other axes of oppression) as its basic unit strays into murky, fascoid territory. Class analysis is carried out with the goal of abolishing class altogether, an antihumanism that aims to restore the human; multiculturalism reifies and hypostasises culture into an eternal absolute. Multiculturalism does not see a person who happens to be Muslim, it sees Islam embodied, and while it might call for all (assumed) differences to be respected, the actual person it addresses is approached only as a signifier of cultural difference. Within these synchronic cultural blocs any internal difference is erased; the fact that these cultures or ways of life are abstractions formed out a multiplicity of real behaviours is abandoned to a mystical idealism. The proper term for this kind of approach is racism. As Žižek himself frequently argues, the primary pathology of the racist is to refuse to see the Jew or the Muslim or the Roma as a person, but to see them only as an embodiment of Jew-ness, Muslim-ness, Roma-ness. So what, then, are we to make of his statement that ‘Muslims find it impossible to bear our blasphemous images and reckless humour, which we consider a part of our freedoms’? Or when he approving quotes Yevgeny Grishkovetz, who writes that ‘they [migrants] have no idea of European values, lifestyles and traditions, multiculturalism or tolerance’? Or when he says of migrants that that ‘their way of life is incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare-state’? Isn’t the appeal to the national or cultural way of life as fundamentally constitutive of subjectivity one that’s generally made by fascists?

Much of this material is essentially a reiteration of his earlier essay in the London Review of Books, and I think it can stand (or fall) on its own merits. But his critique of my position is not just ideologically suspect; it verges on the illiterate.

In discussing my response to his initial argument in the LRB, Žižek zeroes in on a single parenthetical statement, in which I write that even if the dream migrants have of a good life in Norway is impossible, it functions as a transcendent object of desire, and it’s strange behaviour for a Lacanian to insist on the unreality of that object and to urge someone to be more realistic. This is, Žižek writes, ‘simply ridiculous, theoretical nonsense.’ His criticism can be read in two ways. Either his charge is that I’ve made a nonsense out of the theory, misapplying and distorting Lacanian concepts – or that I’m indulging in academic obscurantism, waffling on about obscure psychoanalytical theory while the migrants are charging in to destroy our cherished European way of life. Weirdly, the latter reading appears to be the correct one.

The ideal migrants hold of a better life in Europe is not objet petit a, Žižek writes – it’s ‘a fantasy.’ He continues: ‘Refugees who want to reach Norway present an exemplary case of ideological fantasy—a fantasy-formation that obfuscates the inherent antagonisms. Many of the refugees want to have a cake and eat it: They basically expect the best of the Western welfare-state while retaining their specific way of life, though in some of its key features their way of life is incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare-state.’ In what sense is the word ‘fantasy’ being deployed here? In general, non-theoretical usage it refers to an imagined scenario that simply can’t take place: a deluded person is living in a fantasy-world, they need to snap out of it and rejoin reality. In this sense it makes perfect sense to talk about fantasy as something that ‘obfuscates inherent antagonisms.’ In psychoanalysis, it’d be a contradiction in terms: fantasy is that which structures reality, and even if it’s a symptom, the symptom is always a sign to be interpreted, rather than a cloud that obfuscates.

Let’s say, for the sake of immanence, that Žižek is right, and the good life in Norway is not object petit a but a fantasy. (Not that these two terms stand in any kind of opposition – the matheme of fantasy, $ a, merely represents the barred subject’s relation to that object.) In Freud, the fantasy is integral to sexual life and to life itself. ‘Life, as we find it, is too hard for us […] in order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures.’ While for Freud the fantasies are ‘illusions in contrast with reality,’ they remain ‘psychically effective.’ He compares them directly with art and with scientific activity, both of which are ‘deflections,’ but both of which also allow access to truth. With Lacan, the role of fantasy in constituting the subject and its mental life is emphasised: as Žižek himself writes elsewhere, ‘in the opposition between dream and reality, fantasy lies on the side of reality.’ Lacan’s most famous dictum is that il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel; fantasy is the means by which love manages to persist anyway. The other is always lacking, their gaze is always a void, their figure is always the object of a certain ambivalence, they can never give you what you want. Fantasy compensates for this essential lack in the other; it’s what allows desire for the other to take place despite their inability to fulfil it. From the Écrits: ‘Fantasy is the means by which the subject maintains himself at the level of his vanishing desire.’ This is not the fantasy that Žižek is talking about when he talks about migrants in Europe; he never allows his Lacanianism to actually inflect his politics, because the two are not reconcilable. In Lacanian terminology, what Žižek identifies as a fundamental disparity between ‘our’ civilised European way of life and the irreducible foreignness of the migrants would be called a asymmetry in the Symbolic order. (It’s not just Lacanianism that he abandons here – what happened to the Hegelian identity of non-identity and identity?) If this asymmetry does exist, then fantasy is precisely the means by which it can be resolved. If we lack the appropriate signifiers for each other, then the interdicting untruth of fantasy opens up a space for some semblance of communication. If migrants are to live peacefully and happily in Europe, the demand should not be that they give up their fantasy of a better life, but that they cling to it for all its worth.

One final point. For decades, Marxists have made use of psychoanalytic theory; it’s sometimes easy to forget that Freud and Lacan were not themselves Marxists. In The Question of a Weltanschauung Freud, the Schopenhauerian pessimist, dismisses the Marxist theory of history as a ‘precipitate of the obscure Hegelian philosophy in whose school Marx graduated’ and laments that in the Soviet Union ‘any critical examination of Marxist theory is forbidden, doubts of its correctness are punished in the same way as heresy was once punished by the Catholic church.’ But if he wasn’t a Communist, he was a refugee. When the Nazis absorbed Austria in 1938, Freud escaped to London, fleeing those who would have murdered him with all of Europe’s Jews. (Four of his sisters died in the concentration camps.) He remained there until his death, twenty days after the declaration of war in September 1939. The British media of the time was full of familiar sentiments: fear of the tide of European Jews coming into Britain, represented as rats in cartoons, bringing with them nasty foreign diseases like revolutionary Communism, not respecting our way of life. Did Sigmund Freud abandon his Viennese ‘way of life’ for that of the British Empire? Successive attempts by British governments to define a discrete set of ‘British values’ have generally ended up producing bland nothings, but if we had to identify one absolutely central feature of the national character, it would have to be this: on absolutely no account whatsoever are you to talk about sex. Freud continued his psychoanalytic practice up until his death; we can only assume that this was a cultural injunction he failed to respect. And nor should he.

My own ancestors were Jewish migrants to Britain; had they remained in the Pale of Settlement, their children may well have been incinerated in Auschwitz, and I would have never lived to write these words. But still I’m not content with the situation we have: as a Marxist and a communist, I’m committed to a different and better world, one that does not yet exist. Call it Norway if you want. Žižek, who appears to have abandoned liberation, might sneer. And this may well be, in the conventional sense of the word, a fantasy. But it’s still one that absolutely must be maintained.

Justin Bieber’s dick: reflections from the limits of psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis is the discourse of the dark and distant places, whether the inner caverns of the psyche or the forbidden pit between the legs; its contention isn’t just that these places can be meaningful and significant, but that it’s in this void that meaning and significance take place. And there’s no chasm blacker than early childhood. Nobody remembers their first few years, their first neuroses, their first steps, their first words. We think before we are. It’s as if we all emerged as fully speaking beings, springing fully-formed like Greek gods out of the placid seas. Anything we do remember is generally false: I thought I knew what my own first memory was, something about playing with toy trucks in the bath, until one day I discovered that no, it was a photograph I’d seen years later, and that’s why in my mind’s eye I’m always hovering a few feet in front of my own face. Freud calls these ‘screen memories,’ they cover up a childhood inevitably full of repressed traumas. There’s a kind of circular logic here: psychoanalysis insists that the essential truths of the psyche must spring from this distant and forgotten world, and then proposes that it must have been forgotten because of the essential truths buried within. Which is not to say that this is incorrect. But if I’m honest, my earliest memories are all dreams, specifically, nightmares. Elongated hallways and thudding footsteps, ordinary places turned eerily unreal, and something approaching; the childhood terror of a Thing without qualities. Besides those, nothing: flashes, instants, bursts of light that stutter briefly in a darkness seething with unseen monsters. Everything that actually happened I only know through stories from people who were there. It all happened to somebody else. Which is fortunate for some: if it worked any other way, everyone could be their own analyst.

Sometimes people afraid of dying are told that death is just like how it was before you were born, a comforting line that does nothing to comfort: back then I wasn’t, but I’m here right now, existing, to one day stop, there’s no comparison. It’s more like those first few years of existence – you’re there, growing, bloating, rotting, but the whole experience is unperceived. In Heidegger, the death of Dasein is the condition of its individuality; death belongs to it alone, and nobody else can die for it. This is nonsense. Death is, after all, not an event in experience (Wittgenstein concurs here: ‘We do not live to experience death’), but it is experienced, by our survivors. Our death belongs only and always to other people. And childhood too: childhood, the order of the Imaginary, Oedipus – our prehistory is not our own.

Say a young boy is terrified of horses. Normally a perfectly ordinary child, good-tempered and healthily perverse, at the sight of horses he goes into fits; watching through shuttered hands as the poor docile cart-horses from the coaching house across the street wearily clop over the cobblestones; their nodding, snorting unconsciousness sets him shrieking, bawling, shivering. And he’s always at the balcony: he says he’s waiting for the little girl to appear through the opposite window, but in the meantime he delights himself by being terrified of horses. ‘I have to look at horses, and then I’m frightened.’ Naturally the parents are worried: as devotees of the eminent psychologist Sigmund Freud, they’ve tried to raise their child to be as happy and uninhibited as possible; they can’t understand where they could possibly have gone wrong. So they enlist his help. Sigmund talks to the boy, briefly, with only a little condescension, and then afterwards the child races to the balcony to watch the distinguished psychologist crossing the street. Sigmund Freud paces quickly, wrapping his overcoat tight around his bones against the cold, as he hurries over to the coaching house to speak with one of the horses. A big muscular creature, stained city-white, black harness, black blinkers. He talks seriously and animatedly to the horse, taking off his glasses, stowing them in his overcoat, putting them back on again, blowing big clouds of pipe-smoke into the frosty air. The horse nods solemnly, or bares its gnashing yellow teeth, and all the while its monstrous penis slowly extends, brown and slimy, steam rising from the creature’s great heaving haunches as it discusses it’s son’s curious phobia. And the boy watches, trembling through his tears, full of ancient and unknowable terror.

Little Hans was afraid that his father, embodied as a horse, would come and cut off his penis, a fear that’s so elementary and constitutive of the subject that it’s in a way more true than truth itself. Freud, in his case study of the child, gains most of his understanding of the situation by talking to the father himself; while his entire approach is governed by the idea that Hans is terrified for an explicable reason, that ‘the arbitrary has no existence in mental life,’ there’s still the shroud that falls over childhood that makes it impossible to access from the outside. So he talks to the father, a sensible Freudian himself, to get the facts. Hans is afraid that a horse will bite off his piddler, and Freud goes and discusses the issue with the horse. But there’s one question he doesn’t ask. So, do you? Do you want to cut your son’s dick off?

Psychoanalysis is also, like any symbolic discourse, a discourse of the father; in other words, one in which the actual father is conspicuously absent. The psychoanalytic father is the Symbolic father; both as paternal principle in the order of the Symbolic and as the fundamental and generative phallic signifier. A son’s feelings towards his father are psychoanalytically significant; the father’s towards his son are not. In Lacan, the castration complex ends with what is in a sense an actual castration: the infant, cowed by the father’s potency, abandons any attempt to identify itself with the imaginary phallus; thereafter the phallus is always conceived as that which one lacks. It’s something that belongs to the other, and induction into the Symbolic order of signifiers, in which the phallus is the first, is compensation for this loss. But what happens when the infant grows up, and has children of his own? What happened when Hans became a horse himself? Did he remember the fear he once felt, as he clattered blithely over his own cobblestones? In Freud the child fears castration from the terrifying and priapic father; but in Lacan the father was already castrated a long time ago. And now he’s faced by a red-faced, screaming thing that does not happen to itself, without language, without reason, an unmediated and purely phallic presence. Wouldn’t the immediate, buried instinct be to cut it off?

All this is by way of talking about the nude photos supposedly of Justin Bieber that were recently leaked online. Two things are significant here. Firstly, the fact that the neurotic castrati of online are simultaneously transfixed by the question of how big it is and entirely unable to provide themselves with a satisfying answer. There’s a particular hatred for Justin Bieber that seems to emanate entirely from adult men: they complain that his music is terrible (it’s not that bad, really), as if trying to establish a narcissism of small differences between themselves and a twelve-year-old girl; the real complaint can only be his function as the object of the other’s desire. In other words, from the perspective of psychoanalysis, they hate Justin Bieber because he is their own father. Secondly, there’s this:

The original has been deleted, as if that could fix anything. This is of course Bieber’s father, proudly announcing to the world that he deliberately sought out pornographic images of his own son, and who has essentially sent him a “fuck me daddy” tweet. Some context: Bieber père separated from the star’s mother when he was thirteen months old, and has seemingly returned to cash in on his child’s celebrity; in 2014 it was revealed in a court case that Justin pays his father’s $1,650 monthly rent, nicely inverting the traditional Oedipal triad. In 2002, he allegedly kicked an eighteen-year-old woman in the face, breaking her jaw in two places, after she ejected him from a party at which he boasted that he could beat up anyone in the room and demanded that she lift up her shirt. In another incident, he abused and harassed flight attendants on a private jet. He pushed his four-year-old son’s face into a birthday cake, whereupon Justin tried to calm the child’s tears by showing him images of the event so he could see how funny it was. Of course Jeremy wants to cut his son’s dick off, of course that was what he meant when he leeringly commented on how big it is – like so many millions of others, he ascribes phallus to Justin Bieber, a phallus that even in Lacan can never entirely escape its penile origin; like all of us, his subject is the precipitate of lost objects, the sum total of everything it doesn’t have. Presence belongs to the other, and the paternal instinct is to abolish it. Like every other seemingly normal and healthy person, Jeremy Bieber hungers for the end of the world. But the point isn’t to form a psychoanalysis of the Bieber family, to add some Freudian tinge to the ordinary game of speculating about the private lives of the celebs. The point is to see how Justin Bieber’s dick can push through the edges of psychoanalysis itself, plumb though that hazy region where science fades into the black tomb of infantility and death.

Like the phallus as such, Justin Bieber’s dick is a signifier without a signified. It belongs to nobody – beamed across the world, leered over by millions – certainly not to him. The waking world is the site of an infinite dislocation: there’s a unity and wholeness to its outside, but that happens to someone else, a real person, of which we are only the tumbling echo. The mournful ghost of a world we lost long ago. A hypothetical retort to Freud’s theory of infantile amnesia: early childhood is not forgotten because of the traumas that occur, but because in the absence of trauma there’s no need for memory – after all, in his Project for a Scientific Psychology Freud himself conceives of memory, whether conscious or repressed, as a traumatic breaching in the brain. It’s in these dark places or non-places that psychoanalysis seeks out its truths. Justin Bieber’s dick invites us to step across the threshold of existence into something not fully conceivable: a psychoanalysis of the afterlife.

Building Norway: a critique of Slavoj Žižek

Most of us are now grimly aware of the pernicious hydraulic metaphor for migration – the tendency in newspapers or opinion columns for movements of people to be described in ominously fluid terms: a flood, a wave, a stream, a tide, an influx, a rising body of stinking brown water that can only threaten any settled population. This language isn’t just monstrously deindividuating and dehumanising: when hundreds of migrants are dying at sea, it helps to suture up any ethical laceration before it can fully open itself. Water to water, dust to dust. Vast numbers of people – children included – can sink beneath the waves without anyone feeling any need to do anything about it; it’s only once bodies wash up on beaches that there’s an imperative to act. So it’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that The Non-Existence of Norway, Slavoj Žižek’s essay on migration in the London Review of Books, starts in these familiar terms: ‘The flow of refugees from Africa and the Middle East into Western Europe…’ What comes next is even more unsettling: Žižek compares the European response to the crisis to Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, and so on. Not just any grief, though – Europe is displaying ‘a set of reactions strikingly similar to those we display on learning we have a terminal illness.’ Migrants aren’t just a flood; Žižek resurrects a far more nakedly racist metaphor. The internal other is a parasite, a pathogen, or a cancer, a corrosive and polluting agent that brings death for the (healthy, homogeneous and homoeostatic) body it infects. Of course, this is on the level of the European reaction; he’s not himself making the comparison; it’s something that could be very plausibly dismissed as a little rhetorical pirouette. But it doesn’t bode well for what’s to come.

There are no great old Soviet jokes in this essay, no references to Hitchcock or Kung Fu Panda, and only a brief, perfunctory mention of Stalin. Crucially, there’s no Freud, Lacan, or Hegel; not even (surprisingly, given that the question of migration is ultimately one of hospitality) any citation of Derrida. Above all, there’s nothing that could be considered as Marxism. Which raises the question of what theory is actually for. Is it essentially just a game, a way of forming entertaining readings of pop-cultural ephemera, to be put aside in favour of a level and pragmatic analysis as soon as Real And Important Issues such as migration emerge? Or is it something that’s actually essential in forming a sophisticated understanding of the world, and never more so than when the unspoken demand is that we put away our rhizomes and différances, and start dealing with reality? However guilty I might be of the former tendency, I’d like to believe that the latter is true. Clearly Žižek doesn’t agree: what The Non-Existence of Norway gives us is an unadulterated and unmediated opinion piece, one normal man’s take, something that would be equally at home in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal or on the blog of a self-confessed political junkie.

Žižek’s argument is convoluted and contradictory, but it could be briefly summarised like this. The migration ‘crisis’ currently afflicting Europe is (correctly) identified as the inevitable result of successive Western interventions in the Middle East and north Africa, along with neocolonial relations across the global South. At the same time, migrants display an ‘enigmatically utopian’ demand: they don’t just want to arrive somewhere safe in Europe, away from bombs and guns. The thousands heroically marching across Hungary are scrambling for Austria and Germany, those forced to camp in squalid conditions in Calais are ‘not satisfied with France’ and demand Britain instead, people risking their lives on rubber dinghies across the Aegean want to build a good life for themselves and their children in Norway – but, Žižek insists, ‘there is no Norway, not even in Norway.’ Life isn’t fair, folks. Migrants are everywhere met with reactionary violence, claiming to defend the pre-existing European way of life from the invaders, but the ‘standard left-liberal line on this is an arrogant moralism’ – to insist that human dignity outweighs any concerns over social disruption is ‘merely the obverse of anti-immigrant brutality,’ because it accepts that the defence of one’s way of life is in contradiction with ‘ethical universalism.’ But rather than demonstrating that this is a false opposition, however, Žižek seemingly out of nowhere starts valorising the (nonsensical) view that migration threatens some posited European way of life. ‘Should we tolerate migrants who prevent their children going to state schools; who force their women to dress and behave in a certain way; who arrange their children’s marriages; who discriminate against homosexuals?’ After indulging in this airily speculative rhetoricising for a few paragraphs, Žižek finally gets down to some serious prescriptivism. Europe must ‘reassert its commitment’ to the dignified treatment of refugees. (Does this mean that such a commitment already exists?) At the same time, it ‘must impose clear rules and regulations,’ through a strengthened central European authority. Migrants will be allocated a destination in Europe, and they must remain there. They must not commit any acts of sexist, racist, or religious violence, as such foreign types are apparently wont to do. This is because they are in Europe now, and are no longer free to indulge in the barbarisms endemic and unique to those parts of the world that produce migration. ‘Such rules privilege the Western European way of life, but that is the price to be paid for European hospitality.’ And they must be backed up by brutal state violence.

There is a lot that’s deeply wrong here, even beyond the obvious. The idea that the primary problem is the ‘flow’ of migrants into Europe, that Europe is experiencing a migration crisis, rather than the far more accurate reversal: migrants are experiencing a European crisis, one of fences and fascists and cops. The baffling notion that a lack of sexist, racist, or religious violence is somehow a fundamental part of European life, that these things only exist in the global South, and will be carried, plague-like, by its former inhabitants. The sudden and unexplained invocation of the Islamic veil as the master-signifier of non-European otherness: when hundreds are drowning in the Mediterranean, and thousands more are imprisoned in dehumanising refugee camps, is their expression of religiosity really the most pressing issue? Žižek’s essay seems to be as uninformed by bare facts as it is by theory: a vast portion of the migrants reaching Europe are Syrian, from a middle-income country with a long history of secularism and communal co-existence; the takfiri ideology that is currently running rampage in the region is a foreign import, as are most of the takfiri fighters themselves. Many of the refugees that can afford to make it to Europe are from the Syrian petit-bourgeoisie; if we really do believe that class is a more crucial determining factor than nationality, we should at least be open to the idea that their ‘values’ and ways of life will not be too different from those of bourgeois Europe.

It’s even possible to argue that the migrants are more European than Europe itself. Žižek mocks the utopian desire for a Norway that doesn’t exist, and insists that migrants should stay where they’re sent. (It doesn’t seem to occur to him that those trying to reach a certain country might have family members already there, or be able to speak the language, that it’s driven precisely by a desire to integrate. But also – isn’t this precisely the operation of the objet petit a? What kind of Lacanian tells someone that they should effectively abandon their desire for something just because it’s not attainable? Or are migrants not worthy of the luxury of an unconscious mind?) In Calais, migrants trying to reach the United Kingdom protested against their conditions with placards demanding ‘freedom of movement for all.’ Unlike racial or gender equality, the free movement of peoples across national borders is a supposedly universal European value that has actually been implemented – but, of course, only for Europeans. These protesters put the lie to any claim on the part of Europe to be upholding universal values. Žižek can only articulate the European ‘way of life’ in terms of vague and transcendent generalities, but here it is in living flesh. If the challenge of migration is one of European universalism against backwards and repressive particularism, then the particularism is entirely on the part of Europe.

This is, however, a line of argument that Žižek has deployed himself – see his discussion of the Haitian Revolution in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce; the moment when invading French soldiers were met by revolutionary slaves singing the Marseillaise. (Of course, even if all this weren’t the case – so what? Must anyone who doesn’t embody a certain universalism be left to drown?) So why not now? Is it because the Haitian Revolution is safely ensconced in the past, while the migrants’ crisis is happening now? Is it because of the uncomfortable element of Islam (although, as Susan Buck-Morss demonstrates, that was far from absent in Haiti)? Why, especially, does Žižek perform this total abandonment of theory? His ‘straightforward’ approach results in some highly uncomfortable formulations – take, for instance, the line that ‘refugees are the price we pay for a globalised economy in which commodities – but not people – are permitted to circulate freely.’ Not an overtly objectionable statement, but for the juxtaposition of ‘price’ with ‘economy.’ A price is an exchange-value, something that can only exist within a certain economy. An economy itself cannot have a price without being itself situated within some greater and more general economy – one that, under conditions of capitalist totality, can only ever replicate it. Rather than trying to form any critique of economy as such, Žižek surrenders his analysis over to it. Human life must be calculated in terms of cost and benefit, price rather than value; not just the presence of refugees but their existence itself is figured as an unconscionable squandering of resources. Nobody should be forced from their home, but here those people who are should instead not exist at all. This is why theory is essential: it allows us to more clearly identify, and resist, lines such as these.

Some of these questions might be answered by taking another perspective on Žižek’s essay. A properly Marxist critique doesn’t just look at what a text says, but what it does, and to whom it’s speaking. Žižek makes generous use of the first person plural pronoun throughout, but who is this ‘we’? Only and always the settled Europeans. It’s never once considered that a migrant could be educated, that they could speak English, that they could be reading the London Review of Books. When Žižek uses the vocative case, when he directly apostrophises the reader and makes prescriptions for what they should do, it’s even more obvious who he’s talking to. He invokes, but never encourages, a commonality of struggle between Europeans and migrants, or the kind of displays of spontaneous solidarity that are already breaking out across the continent. Instead, he directly addresses the European ruling classes, instructing them to impose rules and regulations, to form administrative networks, to introduce repressive measures. This is, to put it mildly, strange behaviour for a self-described communist. The Non-Existence of Norway isn’t a theoretical analysis, it’s a gentle word of heartfelt advice in the ear of the European bureaucratic class, one that’s not particularly interested in Lacan. For all his insistence on ‘radical economic change,’ this epistolary structure ensures that such a change is, for the time being, entirely off the table. Hence the insistence that there is not, and can never be, a Norway. The capitalists do not intend to make one, and Žižek does not intend to address those that could. To which the Marxist response must be that if there is no Norway, then we’ll have to build it ourselves.

A short note on racism

The other night, millions of TV viewers were treated to the grand spectacle of a woman being racist on camera. The woman was former Ukip councillor Rozanne Duncan, and the programme itself, Meet the Ukippers, was the usual paternalistic BBC fare – one long sneer at those dreadful tacky ukips, with their mobility scooters and their purple ties and their collections of almost two thousand porcelain clowns (although, to be fair, they do have a collection of almost two thousand porcelain clowns). I live in Seaside Ukipville myself: a damp, ugly trough of barely drained bog and shoddy housing hemmed in by barren bag-strewn hills, a geological latrine that curves out from the less fashionable end of Brighton; I know how it goes. My neighbour flies a huge British flag in his back garden, visible above the low roofline, the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a Third World border town; behind my house there’s a tattered cross of St George, and across the street someone’s decked out the front of their home in both English and British flags. The local shop sells tabloids and tinned peas, all the cheese comes in individually wrapped slices, the aisles are filled with hoarse grandmothers roaring impotent fury at kids with sticky fingers and feral, darting eyes, and you simply can’t get decent bruschetta or even a bottle of wine that didn’t roll flat-bottomed off a conglomerate assembly line somewhere south of the Equator. The whole area was purpose-built after the First World War as part of the Homes for Heroes programme, but these are less homes than filing cabinets for human beings. These places are easy to hate because, well, they’re utterly hateable: dismal, depressing, and shot through with a kind of existential meanness, in both senses – the miserliness of low ceilings and crumbling plaster, the general atmospheric sense of a total hostility to human life. The one thing they have going for them is that they tend to be cheap. That’s why, up to a point, it’s generally best to blame the hideousness of these places on the landlords, the speculators, the ones who left people with no other choice, rather than the people who actually live there.

Up to a point. That point was nicely identified by Ms Duncan, who delivered a long racist rant in front of a clearly horrified Ukip press officer (aghast, no doubt, that someone was actually saying what everyone’s thinking) and – unbelievably – an entire BBC camera team. She ticked just about every box: not just ominously referring to people with Negroid features but directly and openly voicing a specific, personal, visceral dislike for such people, and even recounting an instance in which she had discriminated against them (by pushing for Negro children to be excluded from sheltered housing). And she just kept on going, a bubbling sewer-sluice of the stuff, idiocy after idiocy. What’s strange is that she also insisted, and continues to insist, that she is not a racist. In an interview filmed after she had been fired from Ukip, she seemed to believe that her offence wasn’t a clearly voiced animus towards black people, but the anachronistic use of the word Negro. It’s a description, not an insult, she said. Like how Jews have bent noses. (Mine, I should add, is beaky and protruding but ramrod-straight.) But of course she didn’t think she was saying anything wrong – otherwise she wouldn’t have said it in front of a BBC camera crew, all of them surely trying to stifle their grins and hoping the word paydirt wasn’t visibly flashing across the whites of their eyes.

It’s strange. For a long time anti-racists have been trying to show that racism isn’t just an overt expression of hatred towards one racialised group or another, that it’s an unvoiced hierarchy structurally embedded in the fabric of society, that the construction of race itself is mutually inextricable from racism – and yet after all that, when someone performs the most basic, crude, open expression of racism, she’s unable to recognise it as such. In a way we’re the victims of our own success. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine a slightly more literate racist-apologist defence of Ms Duncan: of course, what she said was unacceptable, but it wasn’t really racist; after all, racism is a structural relation, and what’s one person’s simple prejudice next to the large-scale bigotry of an impersonal system?

Where does this chiasmic structure come from? What Duncan’s insistence on her non-racism demonstrates is that the word ‘racism’ has been emptied of all content. The formation I’m not racist but… is rightly mocked, but it needs to be taken very seriously: it’s the master-signifier of modern racial discourse. After decades of work we’ve finally hammered in the message that Racism Is Bad to the extent that almost nobody will now admit to actually being a racist (with the exception of Chelsea fans abroad); in fact, the word racist has come to mean nothing more than the thing that one is not. There are no longer any racist signifiers; racism exists only on the level of the signified, and when the signifier is entirely overdetermined, something like racism becomes a strange, scuttling, hermit-crab thing. It’s a nomad language, a subterraneous seepage that gloops beneath the solid structures of words and concepts. Like the wet rot that plagues houses in my malarial pit of a neighbourhood, it seeps up into a phrase from beneath and carries out its work beneath paint and plaster. Even the most egregious examples of racism – the string of police killings of unarmed black people in the United States, for instance, or the exclusionary jeering of European secularists – never allow themselves to appear as such, and any attempt to properly fumigate them leaves itself open to the perverse accusation of racialisation.

Some anti-racists seem to be labouring under a strange illusion, the idea that once you identify something as being racist (or sexist, or homophobic, or ableist, or transphobic, or otherwise oppressive) you’ve in some way done away with it. In a way this is true: overt racism really isn’t allowed in the general discourse any more. But racism stubbornly continues to exist; in fact, we seem to be doing more work correctly identifying it than ever. It’s the same with Ukip: the party is routinely mocked on social and traditional media; it’s become a handy byword for stuffy, ugly incompetence; it’s been so utterly annihilated by every stand-up comedian on the circuit that by now there surely shouldn’t be anything left – but for some reason they just keep winning elections. The problem is that simply identifying something or someone as racist, however correctly, has become semantically empty. What’s being said is that the thing is that which it is impossible for anything to be, an obvious nonsense. If the subject is embedded in a discourse of the signifier, and racist is an absolute negation, then it’s structurally impossible for anyone to actually be a racist. (In a way racist is the perfect signifier; it does all the things that Saussure and Derrida and so on say such things should – defining itself negatively, relating to signs rather than things – while most other words still operate according to some kind of magical thinking.) A funhouse mirror version of Hegel’s was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig: what is real is not racist.

What can be done? It’s always possible to invent new words, but while logodaedaly is generally a good in and of itself it’s always very hard to put a slithering oizytic evil back in the box. I don’t have too much objection to the idea of really engaging with the meat of the matter, the intercranial signified, with fists if necessary. But in the end what might be most needed is the continued insistence on a simple truth, as trite as it might seem: racist ideas aren’t wrong because they’re racist; they’re wrong because they’re wrong.

(This is probably a separate discussion, but the fact that Duncan appeared to believe that her racism is a punishment for misdeeds in a past life, and that it could possibly be cured by regression therapy, merits further analysis. The Nazis had grand and stupid alternate cosmologies; their shitty contemporary iteration appears to have an appropriately banalised myth-structure. When Ukip inevitably enter into a governing coalition with Labour this year, will drowning asylum seekers be told that they’re the reincarnations of ungrateful Englishmen? Will Farage claim the quiddity of King Arthur? The future is a terrible place.)

Sisterfucking up the Euphrates

In German, the prefix ur- is used to indicate the now deeply unfashionable sense of an originary, primal form of a thing, which is also its end. Something ursprünglich is the first of its kind, so you’ll have the Uraufführung, or the début performance; the Urtext, the lost first draft of the Hebrew Bible that supposedly existed before all the various priests started fucking around with it; the Urwald, the dense dark forest that once covered the whole of central Europe. The word itself is of good Old Germanic stock, and it’s probably just a coincidence that this caveman’s grunt of a syllable is also the name of a city: that built by ‘Ara son of Kesed, where he made graven images and unclean simulacra, where evil spirits seduced him into wrong and sin, and where the sons of Noah first began to make war on each other. It’s a word from the oldest of the old histories, from when the world was still new; the brutal hoary infancy of civilisation. Before the Romans or the Greeks or the Persians or the Babylonians or the Egyptians, there was Ur, the city on the mouth of the Euphrates where Abraham smashed the idols of his father.

Freud tells a nice parable about the origin of the superego, what could be called an Ur-über-Ich. Once, among a band of squatting cannibal ape-men that would one day become the refined intellectual circus of Vienna, there lived a great and powerful father. This father had many wives, and he took many wives for himself: some were the captured daughters of smaller bands, some were his own daughters. Such was his power that his sons were left with neither food, nor loot, nor wives, and were reduced to contesting among themselves for what scraps they could gain. Eventually, in the face of his unbearable potency, the brothers grouped together, overwhelmed their father, and clubbed him to death. That night they held a great feast, at which their father was the main course. At this moment, the superego was brought into the world. The brothers were jealous of their father, but at the same time they still loved him; out of their guilt the rapacious greed of the father became internalised as a moral code, with its first commandment being a restatement of his paternal rights: Thou shalt not fuck thy sisters.

Like most myths of the land of Ur(-), it doesn’t really matter if any of this actually took place or not. Hobbes and Rousseau were both happy to admit that their states of nature never really existed; Marx was equally unconcerned by the historicity of primitive communism. Freud has a particularly good get-out clause – as he has his ‘exasperated reader’ exclaim, so it’s immaterial whether one kills one’s father or not! While some fathers might have a different opinion on the matter, Freud concedes the point: wanting to kill your father and actually doing so both produce the same psychological effect; the same guilt, the same internalisation. It’s in this context that the story of Abraham begins to make sense. When he lived with his father Terah in the city of Ur, the family sold graven idols; Abraham destroyed these unclean simulacra and went with his wife Sarah into the desert. It doesn’t matter that Terah died peacefully at the age of two hundred and five: the idols, rooted in the paternal totem of the victorious brothers, represent what Lacan calls the name-of-the-father; the Symbolic father that maintains the prohibition on incest. It’s possible to advance an alternate reading of Abraham’s flight to Canaan: when he lived in Mesopotamia he was married to Sarah but still he couldn’t fuck her, not in the house of his father. The book of Genesis explains their childlessness by claiming that Sarah was barren, but the book of Genesis was also written by men, who are always a little squeamish when it comes to male impotence. Sarah was the daughter of Terah by his second wife: she was Abraham’s sister.

Lacan’s concept of the name-of-the-father is a triple pun: le nom du père recalls le non du père (the ‘no’ of the father, the prohibitive function of the superego) but also les non-dupes errent (the non-dupes err). Those who refuse to be ‘duped’ by the process of castration and induction into the Symbolic order – the kind of person who might, for instance, take it upon himself to smash the idols of his father – are not in fact seeing the world as it really is; they’re stuck among the horrors of the Imaginary. The book of Genesis is full of hints towards Abraham’s singular neurosis. Several times in his journeys, as he comes across various unfriendly peoples, he has Sarah pretend to be his sister – in other words, pretend to be what she really is – so that kings and pharaohs will try to sleep with her. For this God punishes them with plagues and nightmares: none shall disrupt His holy incest.

All this is by way of approaching an understanding of the current instability in Iraq. The land of Ur is, for the Western powers that have been steadily clubbing it for the last century, a feared and hated father. All the paternal functions of society first sprung up in the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates: alphabetical writing, codes of law, economic class, monotheism. In the pre-Oedipal stages of infantile psychology there is no recognition of sexual difference and the fantasy of anal birth is common, so it’s no wonder that the Iraq-Father assumes a hemaphrodite form. One vast leg stretches down the Arabian peninsula, the other is cocked between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. Between these lie the damp muddy openings of the rivers, passages leading up into the womb of civilisation, while beyond their fertile banks the desert stretches for miles. An old, decaying parental presence that refuses to die. No wonder everyone from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to Winston Churchill felt the need to invade Iraq.

On the plane of grand strategy, nobody’s Middle East policy makes any sense. Saudi Arabia props up the secular Sisi regime in Egypt, and has threatened to blockade Qatar over the latter’s support for the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time Sisi supports the Assad government in Syria, which the Saudis have spent millions trying to overthrow, and is making friendly overtures towards Iran, while his deposed predecessor Morsi tended to align himself with the Saudi-Israeli anti-Tehran axis. The United States is now considering intervention in support of Iran against Islamist movements in Iraq, fighting the same people it’s armed and funded (through Saudi proxies) to fight Iran’s allies in Damascus. The ‘war on terror’ was never really a consistent programme: while Western imperialism made some efforts against Sunni salafism (Afghanistan in 2001, possibly Iraq now) it’s mostly been used to attack secular Arab nationalist governments (Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011, Syria from 2012). This is diplomacy as a dialectic. Its model isn’t the Nile, with its divisions along the axis of a straight line, but the swampy chaos of Mesopotamia. There are no fixed power blocs, not even Sunni and Shia, only a series of fluid phases successively subsumed in their own contradictions. It’s a grand process of decoding, the untethering of signification, the struggle against the Symbolic, the denial of castration, the murder of the father.

In 2003, the occupying US Army set up Camp Alpha, a huge military base in the ruins of Babylon. Helicopters buzzed around the ancient bricks, Humvees rolled through the Ishtar Gate, defensive trenches were dug through the strata of five millennia. As symbolic erasures of the name-of-the-father go, it ranks up there with Abraham’s destruction of his father’s idols. Still, after the father is killed, it still remains to eat his corpse. Iraq must be consumed. In recent weeks a small armed outfit calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or of Iraq and al-Sham, or of Iraq and the Levant, or Daash – such signifiers tend to only refer to each other) has captured a string of cities in the country and is advancing, or at least making a feint, towards Baghdad. Reports in the Western media claim ISIS funds itself from the territory it already holds and doesn’t require any state support. They’re known to be selling oil to the Syrian government forces they’re supposedly fighting, and (this is a nice touch) are reportedly profiting from the sale of looted antiquities from archaeological digs. All this is pretty dubious, but in any case the Saudis seem rather nonchalant about the peril to the Iranian-aligned Maliki government. Even if ISIS aren’t receiving direct Western support it’s almost certain that arms supplied to ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels are filtering through to them. The terrors and massacres in Mesopotamia are as Western-manufactured as Big Macs and banking crises. Of course, when imperial adventures cause chaos, the solution is more imperial adventure. There’s a growing clamour for intervention; aircraft carriers are heading up the Gulf, the hideous grinning hobgoblin that is Tony Blair returns to haunt the political discourse with its carefully considered opinion. There’s a very real chance that we might be about to enter a third Gulf War. In the face of this danger, it must be kept in mind that when imperialists press for action, all they really mean is that they want to be able to fuck their own sisters.

The passion according to Luke

Everyone has their fantasies. There are people who dream of chains and rope and hot wax, silent watching eyes, dungeons of degradation, masked strangers, shiny black leather. Then there are the perverts, people who get unaccountably excited by the idea of second homes and high-quality consumer goods, holidays in Europe, tasteful interior décor, and a high-paying job in a full-employment economy. Repulsive as they might be, even these fantasies help sustain the subject of the fantasist; they don’t really hurt anyone as long as nobody tries to actually put them into practice. This is the rule of fantasy: you can act it out as an image of an image, but it can never actually come true. Once it does, it loses all its power and enchantment. There are many fantasies like these, tiny glittering gasps of desire, but they’re all in orbit around an invisible sun, one single hidden image that gives them their allure: the ‘foundational fantasy,’ represented by Lacan in the matheme $ a. In this formulation $ represents the castrated or ‘barred’ subject, forced to understand the world through images in response to a primordial lack, with a standing for that absence, the transcendent and nameless object of desire. What’s notable about this matheme is that it lacks an intermediary symbol (such as standing for a problematic relationship, as in the formula $ a for neurotic fantasy): between the two terms there is no relation. Fantasy is grounded in a double absence; the fantasist never necessarily knows the full content of their fantasy. You have to browse through an infinite collection of images and see which ones excite you, find out what kind of radiation the black hole of your desire emits. Here are a few fantasies. See if they work for you.

Luke Vivian-Neal, of the School of Oriental and African Studies team in the 2013-14 season of BBC2’s University Challenge, has a woman with beautiful hair brought to him, saying he simply wishes to examine her hair; but he cuts it off very traitorously and discharges upon seeing her melt into tears and bewail her misfortune, at which he laughs immoderately.
Luke Vivian-Neal, whose team made it to the semi-finals before being beaten by Somerville College, Oxford, sups at an immense table; for light, he has six burning candles, each inserted into the ass of a naked girl lying upon the table.
Luke Vivian-Neal from Lusaka in Zambia, who is studying Chinese but also knows a lot about words of Arabic origin and the location of the Schönbrunn Palace, attaches a slender but attractive girl to a large rocket, the fuse is ignited, the rocket ascends, then returns to earth with the girl still attached.

These are all from entries in the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, a pornographic novel that quickly descends into an early example of the Buzzfeed-style listicle; six hundred numbered acts of debauchery and murder presented with very little adornment or narrative sequence. De Sade was a fantasist in the classic mould: while his libertinage caused some scandals he was still entirely devoted to his wife and obedient to his mother; in his actual sexual practices he tended far more towards masochism than the sadistic tendency to which he gave his name. What’s interesting about the 120 Days of Sodom is that all these deeds are described not as fantasies or stories, but as passions, divided into les passions simples, doubles, criminelles, and meurtrières – all this despite the somewhat offhand way in which de Sade’s heroes carry out their orgies and massacres. In traditional medieval dualism, passion was opposed not to boredom or indifference but to action; it shares a Latin root with passivity. Pneumatic theory, which posited a substance called pneuma through which physical sense impressions were mediated into mental images, held erotic desire to be a passion: you are not an agent, a subject desiring an object, but a patient, the object of a desire that acts on you. Passions are pneumatic images,sensations from outside that seize and overwhelm the subject. For the advocates of courtly love, the idea that you might grab hold of the source of your desire and actually fuck them wasn’t just crass and unseemly; it missed the point entirely. Actions belong to the body, and passions to the mind; consummation of a passion is nothing more than the contemplation or the expression of an image. It’s in this context that de Sade’s passions begin to make sense. His passions are fantastical images, stories within a story, emerging from a void: mise en abyme.

Luke Vivian-Neal is clearly a very passionate man. Or, in the words of various Twitter commentators, he is ‘ever so intense,’ ‘a prime example of a secret serial killer,’ ‘the sort who would wear your skin to a party,’ ‘an evil Paul Merton,’ and ‘actually going to kill all of us #thoseeyes.’ He’s certainly the most interesting contestant University Challenge has had in a while. He holds his forehead low, his hair flops over his eyebrows, and he stares up at the camera with what appears to be utterly undisguised loathing. When he answers a question correctly there’s a tiny grin, a fractured chink through which the horror of the Other’s enjoyment can be glimpsed. When he gets one wrong he looks omnicidal, a glowering thundercloud of a human being. He definitely has a rich inner life. This effect is only heightened by the rest of the SOAS team: motherly Weber, trying to cheer Vivian-Neal up with a smile and a pat on the back; team leader McKean, the cheerfully studious everyman; thoughtful and deliberate Figueroa. They don’t seem to be from the same planet as Vivian-Neal, let alone the same university. It’s not hard to imagine them as the cast of a University Challenge spinoff, a tense psychological thriller in which Vivian-Neal slowly picks them off one by one. Of course, the most important thing about the passion of Luke Vivian-Neal is that it’s a passion: something that acts on him from the outside, an image, a fantasy. Real serial killers are, for the most part, astonishingly boring people; not cold and steely and erudite like Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates, but driven by dull brutish psychopathy. If Vivian-Neal actually had bodies in his freezer, he’d lose all his fascination. The fantasy of the smart, brooding, potentially murderous young man isn’t his – it belong to us, the viewers.

When I was briefly living in America, I naturally took it upon myself to smugly educate as many of the country’s inhabitants as possible in the wonders of British television. These efforts had various levels of success. Some people liked Peep Show, fewer had patience for Stewart Lee, but University Challenge was met with unanimous approval. Part of its appeal might have to do with the show’s inherent excess: these people are quizzed on knowledge that is for the most part fundamentally useless, for what appears to be no real reason, and without even getting a cash prize at the end. There’s a gleeful superfluity to it that fits in well with the sprawling all-consuming mentality of Los Angeles. At the same time it’s something of a human zoo: you’re presented with a constant succession of endearingly dorky and often utterly strange characters, but in a way that deliberately encourages the formation of fantasy. Unlike some quiz show hosts, Jeremy Paxman never asks his contestants how they’re feeling, or who they’ve got supporting them back home, or what their hopes and dreams are; you have to work it all out (or invent it) based on their eagerness with the buzzer, their spluttering when named, the things they know and the things they don’t, their reactions when they win and when they lose. University Challenge reproduces, in laboratory conditions, the formation of fantasy as a defence against the lack that inheres in the Other. No wonder so many of its contestants become minor sex symbols. Intelligence might be sexy, but there’s nothing that stimulates neurotic attachment like a void.

The fantasy of Luke Vivian-Neal is of someone somehow inhuman, someone whose mind follows different rules to the rest of ours. This image forms part of a process of transference. All those desires that the viewer at home watching University Challenge isn’t comfortable with are shifted onto him; he becomes a receptacle for our own deadly passions. In fact, unlike the neurotic voyeurs observing him on their screens, Vivian-Neal seems fully healthy and fully human, entirely unashamed of himself. When he gives that sullen stare, he’s communicating exactly what he wants to.  There might be murderers in this season of University Challenge, but he’s not one of them. The SOAS team lost a decisive quarter-final match to Trinity College, Cambridge 280 points to 105. Vivian-Neal was inconsolable; he couldn’t even bring himself to say the traditional end-of-match ‘goodbye’ to the viewers. The standout character of the Trinity team is Filip Drnovšek Zorko. It’s not just his excellent name, which the announcer reads out with an air of unbridled excitement: Drnovšek Zorko appears to be a genuinely agreeable person. He’s a lamb among wolves. The rest of the Trinity team, with their collared shirts and v-neck jumpers and gemstone-dead eyes, are all monsters of the Oxbridge elite – the same British impulse that conquered the world and killed millions out of sheer boredom. Vivian-Neal has an authentic misery; the only thing they communicate is a shark’s mindlessly propulsive self-satisfaction. Phantom pith helmets hover over their heads. In tonight’s final, Trinity play against Somerville, Oxford for the title. There’s every chance they’ll win; they’re an extremely effective team. If they do, everyone goes home happy. If they lose, the last thing Drnovšek Zorko will see will be his teammates’ pupils narrowing to reptilian slits and their fangs swooshing down from their mouths before they consume him. 

On the encounter, or how I missed a flight because of Slavoj Žižek

I have experienced the full horror of an encounter with that which exists beyond the wall of language and beyond the limits of our comprehension, and it happened in the departure lounge of London Stansted airport, in a seating area between the Wetherspoons pub and a branch of Pret A Manger.

I was there to visit some friends in Edinburgh, and I was flying because it’s cheaper to get to Scotland by hurtling through the sky in a tin can full of burning kerosene than it is to take a train. I don’t like airports. I don’t think anyone does, apart from planespotters, executive bankers, Boris Johnson, and other such psychopaths. It’s not even the queuing, or the brusquely voyeuristic security measures, or the abolition of the indoor smoking areas; it’s the fact that airports seem to be the focal points of a very peculiar sort of regimented insanity. Why do the tannoy announcers in airports seem to be so ashamed of their humanity that they mimic the blank tone and halting cadence of a robotic voice? Why do most of the books sold at airports seem to concern a terrorist plot to kill hundreds of people in an airport? In 2009 Heathrow chose as a writer-in-residence for its newly opened terminal that blithering clunkhead Alain de Botton. He wrote a book about the experience. Sample sentence: In the cloudless dawn, a sequence of planes, each visible as a single diamond, had lined up at different heights, like pupils in a school photo, on their final approach to the north runway. I don’t think anyone capable of producing such artless imagery should be allowed near a rural bus stop, let alone an international air transit hub. But in a way it makes sense: de Botton’s banal quietism, vaguely inquisitive but ultimately more concerned with homilies than critique, is precisely the kind of attitude that our infernal masters in the airport system want to promote.

In Stansted, I was busy inadvertently scalding my tongue on coffee and trying to pummel my mind into a book by de Botton’s less platitudinous namesake, Alain Badiou. I’d managed to find a less crowded area, but there was still plenty of commotion. Kids gnawed at the edges of their seats. Clashing strains of cheery pop blared from various exciting retail spaces. Harassed-looking commuters played an endless series of computerised bloops through their iPads as they crushed candies or angered birds or did whatever it is we’re now required to do to stop us committing suicide whenever we have five minutes to ourselves. Badiou was trying to tell me about the universality of the truth-event, but I’d had three hours’ sleep the previous night and it was pretty hard to listen. I felt a faint shadow fall over me in the diffuse airport light, and looked up. Standing in front of me, meeting my gaze with his, was the Slovenian philosopher, critic, author of over seventy books, and ‘intellectual rock star,’ Slavoj Žižek. He was pale and haggard, his nose pulsing, his legs trembling. I might have imagined this, but he appeared to be wearing an illustrated Žižek alphabet t-shirt: A is for the Absolute, B is for the Big Other, C is for cocaine, and so on, and so on. And he was looking at me with pure, undisguised terror.

I’d come across Žižek before. In a talk at the Royal Festival Hall he’d accused the entire audience – myself included – of being ideologically incoherent for failing to properly understand the ‘tomorrow belongs to me’ scene in Cabaret. In these pages I’ve variously mocked his beard, parodied his writing and speaking style, and pointed to the dearth of censure for his outbursts of antiziganism. His publishers follow me on Twitter. This was different. I wasn’t facing the ‘Elvis of cultural theory’ or ‘the most dangerous philosopher in the West,’ or even the author of over seventy books. With his sad grey eyes and his meline snuffling Slavoj Žižek looked like nothing so much as some reclusive woodland creature, something small and hunted and incredibly fragile. He was in shock. He’d been in London to promote his new film; he’d been surrounded by journalists and interviewers and, worst of all, his fans, who he famously can’t stand. Finally, he was in Stansted airport, protected by a wall of duty-free perfume and ruffled copies of the Daily Mail; he thought he was safe. No such luck. He was just looking for somewhere to sit before his flight, but then he saw me. He saw what I was reading. In a blurb, Žižek has said of Badiou that ‘a figure like Plato or Hegel walks here among us.’ I would know who he was. I would want to talk to him, or take a photo, or have him sign something; it would be unendurable. He had to leave before I noticed him. Too late. I looked at him and he looked at me. Or maybe the other way round: for a Lacanian, the Gaze is never your gaze, it’s the gaze of the Other, the anxious feeling that the object of our glance is looking back at us. In any case, he grunted and shuffled away as quickly as he could.

I was in shock too. My plans for that morning were to drink some coffee, try to read a book, and catch my flight to Edinburgh. I wasn’t expecting to be thrust into a miniature staring contest with Slavoj Žižek. Nobody had warned me that this was about to happen. Now I know how I’ll behave in a moment of crisis: as the sniper fire whooshes past my ears or the avalanche slowly descends or the inferno blazes around me I’ll just sit there, mute and stunned, an idiot smirk hovering on my lips. By the time I regained my senses he was gone. Quickly I hurried after him. I had to get something: a photo, an autograph, a blurb for my first novel, a response to my critique of his contribution to David Lynch scholarship, something to prove our encounter had actually happened. He had his role, and I had mine. He would flee, and I would hunt him.

I never did find him. By the time gave up my hunt my flight’s final call was imminent. In my panic I followed the wrong signs and found myself trapped on a slow-moving automated transit to a distant outpost of the terminal. When I eventually reached my gate the staff told me that the plane’s doors had been closed less than two minutes ago and that I couldn’t be allowed to board. Pleading had little effect. I had missed my flight, the next one wasn’t for seven hours, and it was all Slavoj Žižek’s fault.

This is what’s meant by an encounter. Most of the time when we see people we don’t really look at them, and for good reason. Walk down a crowded street and you’ll be confronted with countless gazes and subjectivities, an infinity of infinities of experience. You can’t approach all these people as other subjects; you’d go mad, end up as a street preacher or a serial killer. It’s much safer for everyone if you consider them as vaguely mobile obstacles. If you see someone you find particularly attractive or particularly objectionable you might go into a brief flailing panic, your eyes darting around them, your neck craning over to watch them walking away, but that’s over in a second. Sometimes, though, there’s an encounter; a point where you approach someone else in a manner that is entirely beyond the structures of signification and at the same time full of an incredible significance. We all leave a certain amount of turbulence in our wake. The encounter can result in grand leaps in human knowledge, or the ruin of cities, or me being stuck in Stansted airport for seven hours. For Badiou, though, the encounter is the fundamental basis of love. As a good Maoist, he rejects the banal cod-spiritualist view in which love is seen as a process by which two people become one: the essence of love is the properly dialectical formation of a Two. In an encounter – in a real encounter – a monadic subjectivity finds itself opened up to other people, to numerativity, and through this it gains access to the infinity of experience.

I’m not so sure about this. Badiou’s maths is probably better than mine, but I’ve yet to see a series of integers ever actually ending in infinity. Žižek is less positive about the whole thing; for him the paradigmatic form of the encounter is the encounter with the Real. He writes: ‘When do I actually encounter the Other ‘beyond the wall of language’, in the Real of his or her being? Not when I am able to describe her, not even when I learn her values, dreams, and so on, but only when I encounter the Other in her moment of jouissance: when I discern in her a tiny detail (a compulsive gesture, a facial expression, a tic) which signals the intensity of the real of jouissance. This encounter with the real is always traumatic; there is something at least minimally obscene about it; I cannot simply integrate it into my universe, there is always a gulf separating me from it.

My encounter with Slavoj Žižek was an encounter of this kind. I looked at him and he looked at me; we saw each other beyond the wall of language. The sensation that accompanied this encounter wasn’t love: it was mutual horror. For a brief second before I set off to chase him down, the linguistic structure of my subjectivity was shattered. I saw myself from the outside. It was something like Kristeva’s formulation of abjection – the awareness of a subject as something other than a subject, the feeling you get when confronted with human shit or a corpse. The traumatic sense of my own finitude.

The encounter is unpleasant, but this doesn’t mean that it should be avoided. In a sense, Badiou is right: it opens up a pathway to the infinity of experience, not through numerativity but through a Deleuzian operation of minority and multiplicity. Deleuze claims that we never encounter another person directly. We encounter the Gaze, and this wordless gaze emanates from the Real where there is no lack and no insufficiency. It’s upsetting, but it’s a duty: in the end, it’s our duty towards our own deaths.

In the end, I caught the next flight. Edinburgh was very nice.

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